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International – Media freedom, independence key in wake of anti-Islam film

25 Sep

25 September 2012

(IPI/WAN-IFRA/IFEX) – 24 September 2012 – In the United States, a movie trailer of uncertain origin is posted on YouTube, purporting to promote “Innocence of Muslims”. Though the trailer is an unbearably stupid, incredibly offensive portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, with production values of a high-school parody, the trailer sets off a wave of anti-American violence in the Middle East.

Though the average American would be offended by the portrayal, and would agree the film does not represent common perceptions about Islam, American embassies across the Middle East and North Africa have become the target of protests and attacks. The spread, scale and intensity of the protests are surprising when one considers how marginal and absurd the film is that purportedly sparked them.

Sustained demonstrations against U.S. embassies have been reported in some 20 countries around the world, and have resulted in several deaths. The most shocking attack occurred on a consulate in Libya, where four Americans, including the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, were killed. (Officials in Libya have since arrested a number of people in connection with what may have been a premeditated attack.)

Western media coverage of the protests has been intense, focussing on violence, anti-American statements and on security measures taken at the embassies. There appears to have been less coverage of protests by people in Muslim countries, who were condemning the attacks.

According to the Libyan Herald, last week there were “growing protests” in Tripoli and Benghazi to condemn the violence that killed Stevens and others. The same is true in Yemen, according to Hakim Almasmari, publisher and chief editor of the Yemen Post. He told us that while “hundreds” had participated in the demonstrations that turned violent in Sanaa last Thursday (an event that reportedly left four protestors dead), many more demonstrated against those attacks the next day. Journalists told IPI that during Friday prayers near the capital’s change square, leaders spoke out against the use of violence. The message they are sending, according to Almasmari, is: “Yes, the film was bad, but the embassy should not have been attacked.”

Many in the Arabic media have reportedly condemned the film, but also the violence, according to media reviews by the BBC and CNN. But, at the same time, there is a widespread belief in the region that such a film could never be made without official sanction, and that the authorities can and should take action to ban such offensive portrayals.

Though much of this belief clearly stems from personal conviction, it also illustrates a misunderstanding about the role of free expression in Western societies, where even offensive speech is protected. This misunderstanding could be corrected by strengthening the news media so that citizens have access to a broader array of ideas and perspectives. There is a universal tendency for people to believe stereotypes, and only a diverse and critical media can help challenge the misunderstandings or even misinformation on which such stereotypes are based.

That’s why media freedom and independence are more important than ever. And why new opportunities for building and sustaining independent media around the world must be a priority: so that people who promote hatred and violence can be countered not with more violence, but through discussion and debate in the national and international press.

In Egypt, television journalist Shahira Amin told us: “The media have been low key and calling for those responsible to be held to account. They want the U.S. to take action. I think a lot of people don’t understand the free expression, and they’re asking the U.S., thinking the U.S. can do more to crack down on this kind of behaviour.”

She added: “[The media] have also been calling for restraint, and there’s a lot of condemnation about what’s happened in Libya. For the first time, I feel like people are condemning this kind of behaviour and are saying it’s unjustifiable, and I’ve read several columns saying the reaction is a bigger insult to Islam [than the movie].”

Amin explained that it was extremist football fans and Salafists who were primarily responsible for last Tuesday’s attack on the embassy. She said that most demonstrators are “venting” their “anger at unmet expectations because of the security lapse, the unemployment, the high prices.” According to Amin, the current demonstrations [in Egypt] are just the latest show of anger against the United States that dates back to the era of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The Yemen media, Almasmari said, “are talking about condemning the movie and ensuring people understand the limits of [that condemnation]. It’s a more wise way; they’re saying you have no right to attack these embassies.” He also voiced his hope that “if Muslims are attacked by being called terrorists,” that people in the West would condemn that.

“I think the media should play a neutral role and not take sides. That’s the kind of environment we’d [also] like to see in the West, where people understand what’s right and what’s wrong and condemn the mistakes and not generalize it into a religious issue,” Almasmari said.

As the protests against the U.S. (and more recently against the British and German embassies in Sudan, and with France closing embassies in the wake of the publication of new satiric cartoons) grow, the role of media grows ever more important. Social media provide a way for people around the world to share instant updates and express a broad range of personal views. But only “traditional” news media have the mandate and ability to put the film, the protests and the response to those protests into their political and cultural contexts.

It should be repeatedly underscored that those who made “Innocence of Muslims” represent the feelings of very few. It should also be highlighted that, in the United States, even forms of hate speech are protected under the First Amendment, and there is precious little that the government can do to stop its distribution or punish its creators, as revolting as this little production may be.

Western media can also better explain the reaction in the Arab world by, distinguishing between who is calling for demonstrations, and who is hoping for (or involved in) violent attacks and looting. There is more to these protests than an extreme reaction to an amateurish film made by a bunch of marginal, professional haters. There are long-held resentments toward the United States that are resurfacing (and can be exploited by the self-serving) and there are vastly different understandings of what kinds of speech should be restricted. For example, The New York Times reported on Sunday that the book The Da Vinci Codewas banned by several Middle Eastern countries because it was considered an affront to Christianity and that, for example, Egypt forbids “insulting any of the three Abrahamic religions.” The reporter also notes that in Egypt, there is a “widespread belief” that Holocaust denial is illegal in the United States, which it is not.

This is the type of thing American audiences should know in order to better understand the protests in Egypt, and it demonstrates the kind of misinformation that the media should seek to address.

It’s a complicated world. At times like these, it is more important than ever that the media be free to report on the truth, and that they exercise the judgment to do so in a calm and clear-eyed way. Let us not let the harmful acts of a few – the hateful film, the vicious attacks – overwhelm the ability of people to be properly informed by the only institutions with a clear mandate to do so: the independent news media.

via IFEX


Blog: Receding hopes for press freedom in Tunisia

25 Sep

Tunisian journalists from Assabah call for more freedom at a protest in Tunis on September 11, 2012. (AFP/Khalil)

These days, press freedom in Tunisia feels ever more distant.

Many journalists believed that media freedoms, which were virtually nonexistent under former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, would grow after his ouster. During the aftermath of the December 2011 uprising, an independent press blossomed and special commissions were set up to reform the media sector. But since the elected government took office nine months ago, the tide has slowly reversed.

Over the past several months, the government appointed a series of new heads of media outlets, including state radio, print, and television establishments. The National Union of Tunisian Journalists denounced the government’s move as an attempt by the authorities to place their sympathizers in powerful positions in order to control state-run media coverage–a tactic also used by Egypt’s new government.

“The government is trying to exercise its control over the country’s media establishments,” said Kamel Labidi, former CPJ consultant, veteran journalist, and human rights defender. Labidi told me that the government appointed these individuals not based on any media experience or criteria, but because of their alignment with the ruling Ennahda party.

Labidi led the National Authority to Reform Information and Communication, a body tasked with reforming the media sector after the revolution. In July, Labidi and the rest of the commission resigned due to the government’s lack of commitment to press freedom. Among the reasons for his resignation were draft amendments proposed by a minor political party to the November 2011 Decree 115 of the new press code. The code, which is supposed to ensure freedom of press, has been approved by parliament but not yet implemented. The proposed amendments would introduce jail time for insulting scared icons and public figures, among other restrictions.

The most recent of the government appointments, in August, was that of Lotfi Touati, a former police commissioner and well-known government sympathizer, as head of the iconic Dar Assabah media group, the oldest media house in the country, established in 1951. Touati’s appointment stirred much controversy among Tunisian journalists. On September 11, Dar Assabah journalists and other employees went on strike to protest his appointment. In 2009, Touati was accused of leading a government-orchestrated takeover of the leadership of the National Union of Journalists, according to news reports.

Days after his appointment, Touati censored an article that was to be published in one of Dar Assabah’s dailies criticizing his appointment, according to news reports. He also fired one of the three top editors at the Arabic-language daily Assabah and published a limited list of people authorized to write editorials, the reports said.

More disturbingly, on September 13, a car driven by Touati struck Khalil Hannachi, a reporter for Assabah, according to news reports. Hannachi was outside the Dar Assabah headquarters in the capital, Tunis, waiting to confront Touati about recent decisions he had made regarding the media group and its newspapers, news reports said.

News accounts citing a witness reported that Touati started his car and “moved ahead at full speed.” The journalist lost consciousness and was taken to a local hospital, as shown in an amateur video circulating on YouTube after the incident. He sustained bruises on his head and has not regained full hearing, Assia Atrous, a reporter for Assabah, told me.

When I spoke to Atrous last week, she was attending a protest in front of the constituent assembly calling for an investigation of Touati. Atrous said the government has not taken any real steps to investigate the incident, although the Interior Ministry acknowledged it had received conflicting statements about the collision, according to news reports. Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche said that Touati claimed the journalist “intentionally threw himself in front of the car,” while Hannachi “claimed he was deliberately hit.”

Naziha Ghodbeni, a journalist with Dar Assabah, told the news website Magharebia that the government was using the media group as “its mouthpiece to perpetuate its presence by shining its image and deceiving the public opinion about its false achievements.”

With these actions, journalists are reminded of the former regime’s repressive tactics, and that is not the direction Tunisia should be heading three months away from the second anniversary of the revolution.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Guinea – Guinean journalist attacked, radio station vandalized

25 Sep

25 September 2012

(MFWA/IFEX) – 25 September 2012 – Oumar Tely Diallo, a trainee-reporter of the privately-owned satirical Lynx-Lance newspaper, was physically assaulted on September 21, 2012 by a group of angry pro-government militants while covering a political riot.

The attack left Diallo with torn clothes, while his attackers made away with his camera, pen-drive, mobile telephone and some cash.

According to the Media Foundation for West Africa’s (MFWA) correspondent, Diallo was covering a riot which pitted opposition militants against supporters of the ruling People’s Rally of Guinea (RPG) when he was suddenly surrounded and beaten by his assailants.

In a related development, on the same day, the premises of Conakry-based Sabari FM was vandalized by unknown persons. The attack resulted in the destruction of reporting equipment and the loss of personal belongings of the journalists.

The glass windows of the radio station were also shattered.

The MFWA is deeply concerned about the recent spate of attacks targeted at the media, considering the fact that in a space of one month, two politicians have attacked two radio stations while party militants continue to assault journalists.

We, therefore, reiterate our call on the authorities to be critical of these attacks and safeguard the lives and rights of journalists and media personnel in Guinea.

via IFEX

Syria: Bilal Ahmed Bilal the Imprisoned Journalist

25 Sep

Bilal Ahmed Bilal (Damascus Media Center)

This time last year the Assad Regime took Bilal from his home. Although one year has passed his family still does not know why he was taken, or what has happened to him.

During the revolution Bilal called for the demonstrations to be peaceful. However, the regime captured him out of fear of his influence on others.

The only thing his family knows about his situation is that he was captured by the secret police and taken to the army recruitment center in Daariya while he was in the process of preparing papers to travel to Beirut for an assignment.

Bilal was a journalist for the TV channel, Palestine Today.

He has a degree in History from Damascus University, and he has another degree in Media Studies.

Bilal used to live in the suburbs of Damascus. He is married and has a 3 year old son, Ali.

His friends wrote the following on Facebook: “Bilal you would prefer prison to seeing the massacres that are happening in your land, especially in the suburbs of Damascus and Daariyah”

Another friend wrote “Bilal did nothing wrong, except that he wanted to express his opinion freely under his real name, not a fake one, as per the new law ensuring the freedom of the press*”

(*It is worth noting Bashar al Assad himself enacted this law)

On various social networking sites journalists and activists have held the mukhabaraat accountable for the well being of Bilal. They demand his immediate release and an explanation as to his whereabouts because to this day no one has heard anything about him since his arrest…

Damascus Media Center (English) Syria Freedom Stories

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